December 3rd, 2009


Poem: "The Culture of the Earth"

This poem came out of the December 1, 2009 poetry fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from haikujaguar, and from my partner Doug who threw in a reference to "The Blind Men and the Elephant." The poem was sponsored by janetmiles.

The Culture of the Earth

Six aliens came down to Earth
And parked their cosmic bike.
They all resolved to spend the time
To take a little hike
Across “the culture of the Earth”
To see what it was like.

The first one went to Africa
And therein made his score.
He saw a bigger heap of grief
Than he had seen before,
And said, “The culture of the Earth
Is very like a war!”

The second went to Europe where
He stayed a week at least,
And in the cafés of the land
He sampled bird and beast
And said, “The culture of the Earth
Is very like a feast!”

The third attempted Asia till
The weather called a halt;
The Himalayas stymied him,
Though that was not his fault.
He said, “The culture of the Earth
Is very like a vault!

”Australia was the port of call
The fourth one called his own
But shortly he got pounded flat;
His cover was all blown.
He groaned, “The culture of the Earth
Is very like a stone!”

The fifth to South America
Was beckoned to embark
And there he found compelling things
To chase from dawn to dark.
He swore, “The culture of the Earth
Is very like a spark!”

At last in North America
The sixth made his landfall.
He shopped his way across the states
Till he could hardly crawl,
And cried, “The culture of the Earth
Is very like a mall!”

When they returned to share the tales
Of everywhere they’d been,
They could agree on nothing, not
A single specimen –
And that is the last the Earthlings heard
Of those little green men.

The wives of the explorers soon
Had puzzled out the gist
And when each one stopped laughing, she
Said to her husband, “Hist!
Forget ‘the culture of the Earth’
As it does not exist!”

Loneliness and Fraying Social Fabric

haikujaguar recently posted about this article on loneliness and how it spreads. She said in part:

I think this is pretty important and have been thinking about it for a day, particularly in the context of how we like to talk about "cutting off" people who are "dragging us down." I understand that carrying lonely, annoying, spiky or poorly-socialized people is a burden, but it's always felt important to me to try. Here's science saying, "It is important, and we have a tendency not to."

This is one of many ways in which the social fabric is fraying. There's another feedback loop not mentioned in the article, however. It used to be that society rewarded and supported people who "carried" others. Now that happens less and less. So the people who do this work tend to get used up in the process. It becomes a self-destructive habit, because not enough people take care of the ones who do it. When nobody's helping you carry a load, you can either let it crush you -- or lighten the load. Most people lighten the load. The ones who get crushed become an object lesson to everyone else, so that this is taught not as a virtue but as a vice. There are then fewer and fewer people available to do this kind of work.

Furthermore, it's very difficult to do this sort of work "in moderation," because damaged people can be extremely clingy around their last few friends. About the closest you can come is working with just one lonely person at a time. You still need to have the extra time and energy to deal with someone else's problems in addition to your own responsibilities and issues, because if you don't have extra, then you not only exhaust yourself, you also let down the healthy people who are depending on you to fill your social role in ways you can't if you've spent yourself out propping up someone broken.

That leads to another aspect of this collective mess: fault tolerance. That's a system's ability to absorb shocks, drains, or damage without losing function. We've built a society with almost no fault tolerance; we're running near, at, or beyond maximum safe limits on most things most of the time. So every bump and joggle and setback tends to be felt keenly. There is rarely any kind of extra capacity or safety margin to compensate for inevitable challenges. That means more people get hit hard enough to sustain real personality damage because they're closer to the wall, that fewer people are available to help them recover before the damage becomes irreversible, and that there's unlikely to be much if any backup for the people who might try to help them, so that if a helper goes down even for a little while that causes hardship for someone else who relies on the helper.

Now bring in the money aspect. Loneliness is getting worse because we've discarded many long-term bonds of extended family, church congregation, secure employment, etc. -- so society responded in the classic capitalist way, paying people to do the work. We've thrown more of this burden onto counselors, social workers, and other professionals. Unfortunately, they tend not to get called in until the situation is already a total disaster; and their services are unaffordable hence unavailable to many people. That throws the burden back on a person's friends and family, if any. So the subsystem we devised to deal with the gap doesn't actually work very well. And what's worse? Almost all the "helping" professions routinely function beyond safe capacity. This loops right back to burnout, which is where we started.

It's not a vicious circle. It's a vicious tesseract. Every piece of it connects to the others and makes the problem worse.

So, how do we address this problem without causing more damage to ourselves or somewhere else?

1) The article mentioned one excellent approach: catch problems early before they get really bad and really hard to fix. It's better to prevent someone from drifting to the edge of the social web than it is to haul them back after they get that far out.

2) A huge help would be to restore our support of people who are doing the hard work of sustaining others. Do you know somebody who does pastoral counseling or marriage counseling or community outreach or is otherwise acting as a social grease trap? Try doing something nice for them. Take them out to dinner. Wash their car. Pick up the slack if their work makes them temporarily unavailable. And tell them you appreciate what they're doing. This sort of thing is much easier to do in moderation, but it helps make more people available for social support over a longer time.

3) Practice and teach social skills. People who grow up in subfunctional families often don't learn everything they need. Sometimes friends can help fill in the gaps. Especially listen for people saying, "I don't know how to..." or citing bad examples from their background. Those are good openings for more positive examples: "One way to do that is..." or "In my family, when this happens, we..."

4) Use the tools you have. In this context, cyberspace can be tremendously useful. It's not a substitute for facetime socializing, but it can keep people connected in circumstances where facetime socializing is difficult or impossible. It's also a terrific addition to more conventional activities. I know lots of folks who use LJ to keep in touch with other people, lighten depression, or rustle up social support. You can socialize freestyle or look for helpful memes; this is part of my inspiration for the "Hard Things" and "Plans and Goals" memes in my LJ, which are visible under the "community" tag.

5) Build the biggest, strongest social network that you can. Spread it across multiple layers of family, employment, spirituality, locale, whatever works for you. Encourage people to connect with each other. Do things to create and strengthen connections -- celebrate life's milestones, gather for holidays, send cards or gifts, plan activities together, etc. Share news. The better the network, the more likely people will be there for each other in times of need.

When challenges arise, do one thing yourself and then pass the word: "John's car broke down. I drove him home; he'll need someone to run him to the grocery store tomorrow." Depending on how well you know your listener (and how well they know the victim), you might throw in an extra phrase such as, "What about you?" or "Do you know anyone who could help?" or "What are you doing?" There's a delicate balance between inviting people to take part in a social network, and pestering them. But the hinting can be really helpful to folks who want to take part but don't know how because they've never belonged to a functional group before.

Don't try to do everything yourself; that way lies burnout. Instead, try to spread out the burden across multiple people so that it doesn't cause serious hardship for anyone.

What are some ways that you use to create and support social connections in your life?